The Mercurial Phil Liggett

Bangers and mash. Peaches and cream. Cucumber sandwiches and Wimbledon. And of course: Phil Liggett and the Tour de France. If you’re watching any race on TV other than the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, for example, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Tour of Flanders, or even the Giro, you’re not going to get Phil Liggett. He is not a cycling commentator really. He is a Tour de France commentator. He is the Tour de France commentator. For as long as I can remember – and my Tour de France watching days go way back to the controversial Pedro Delgado 1988 race – I naturally associate Phil Liggett with the colours and tones of France in midsummer and the image of pain sketched on the faces of the peloton.

Phil Liggett’s velvety intonation – redolent of a better Age – accompanies the idealism of the Tour, as much as hearing a few strains of Mozart makes one think of 18th century Europe. His voice is warm and familiar, like that of an understanding uncle. It has the authority invested in it, as well as the hard yards of many years of commentating, to seem immutably true – as true as the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas himself.

I was therefore anxious, as I believe were many, to hear how Phil Liggett would weigh in on the topic of the doping allegations against Lance Armstrong, and particularly at the point in time when those allegations really got serious. Things really get serious, in my opinion, when a Federal investigation is launched into one’s behaviour. At least that is where I set the bar.

Some more generous souls than me may feel enthused to point out that Phil Liggett is not an opinion piece writer or speaker, nor a polemicist, nor even a journalist per se. That he is merely a commentator and that he does not therefore engage in opinion or preferences in a public domain. His is a simple job, to commentate on what can be seen by all of us on the TV screen. Of course, we accept that on occasion his enthusiasm will spill over. He may offer some general opinion on particular riders, but it is rare that he would reflect on doping other than in an obtuse reference. For example, I have heard him invoke the phrases ‘the dark years’, or the ‘Festina affair’.

It was therefore very surprising to have him enter the cyber-world quite unexpectedly on Ballz Visual Radio, a web-radio show hosted by Darren Scott, who himself had been in some trouble, having been recently axed for alleged racist remarks made during a bar discussion over monies owed. On the 27th of August 2012, Phil Liggett made himself available to Darren Scott, via Skype, from his home in England – having returned ‘just an hour ago’ as he put it – from a trip to the US. The world had just learnt that Armstrong had ‘decided’ not to pursue any further argument with USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, after they made a public statement stripping him of all his titles since his return from cancer in 1999, and Darren Scott’s team had anxiously contacted Phil Liggett to weigh in on the matter.

Phil Liggett has never been one to venture into vituperative invective – a man ordinarily cautious to find fault in others – but in this interview he seemed more incensed than I have ever seen him before. One would have thought the dangers of negative publicity coupled with the notion of the butterfly effect would have been apparent to a man of so many decades of live commentating experience – but there bubbled beneath the normally urbane surface of Phil Liggett some very distinct anger.

Either Darren Scott sensed there was blood in the water, and saw the opportunity to seize upon a journalistic moment in which one’s subject is enraged. Or perhaps, he possessed a soft spot for Armstrong, a natural bias borne out of a need to defend the accused and the recently shamed. Nevertheless, he deftly led Phil Liggett to utter the following words: “Look”, Phil said, scratching his head in visible frustration – in what could be deemed an action moment on Visual Radio – emitting a phase which would bewilder the entire cycling fraternity, “It is politically motivated. They have a reason for doing this and it’s not what they say. It’s not to clean up the sport of cycling. There is another reason behind this which they are clearly not saying.”

Phil had effectively just accused the United States Anti-Doping Agency of not wanting to clean up the sport of cycling, in contradiction to their stated manifesto. Of course, it was not the first time we had heard about this ‘conspiracy’ theory, but it was somewhat bizarre to hear about this particular conspiracy being perpetuated by USADA. Not satisfied with opaque innuendo, he went on to call USADA a ‘nefarious local drugs agency in the United States’. Once again, that would be something like calling the FBI a Capone-style mafia despotism. It seemed almost comically ironic when Darren Scott then wondered aloud whether there might be a large civil claim by Armstrong against USADA for defamation of character.

I was struck also, in listening carefully to Phil’s frustrated invective for nuggets of reason, to happen upon his strongest argument against not only the investigation into Armstrong, but into investigation as a concept at all. “Why,” he asks Darren, “twelve years on, are these people trying to nail Lance Armstrong? A person who brought a lot of kids into the sport and a lot of adults too over the twelve years. Who found a bike and who found great pleasure and –um – isn’t that all that matters?”

Phil had made his most salient argument: that it is possible and desirable in this world, to forgive anything, even cheating for one’s entire career, if one has found great pleasure. He meant of course – and probably would have said so were he not jet-lagged – that Armstrong has done a lot of good, is retired, and that it doesn’t really matter whether he cheated or not. Phil appeared to wish to defend Armstrong’s innocence, whilst simultaneously invoking the notion that cheating’s ok, if you’re Lance Armstrong.

I had to take my hat off to him. He showed great irreverence and balls, when he accused his ultimate client, the Tour organisers ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) of being ‘uneducated people in many ways’. He also accused them of questioning the validity of the performance of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in the 2012 Tour de France. I suspect he was confusing ASO with a Le Monde opinion piece, but then one never really knows with Phil.

Some may view this argument as defamatory in nature. One should be sure of one’s facts and avoid, both for the benefit of the subject, as well as for the truth in the matter, misrepresentation. I can only say that I would agree and that at the very least I would wish to be more certain of my facts than Phil Liggett was when he then went on to accuse ten men of taking bribes and favours, handed out by USADA. “Now I believe,” he said, “that these ten witnesses who have all admitted apparently to seeing Lance take drugs or selling drugs or passing them on and they themselves taking drugs. The reason they’re witnesses is they’ve either been paid or they have been given a deal that they’ll never be touched as far as suspensions go.”

One would want such a man on one’s side – on a battlefield for example, holding up the Confederate flag, or the Texan flag for that matter. But Phil managed a stunning about-turn, only two months later, when asked by Darren Scott whilst appearing on Ballz,again. “Do you see it as a good thing for cycling?” Darren asked Phil in reference to the UCI, the governing body in cycling, ratifying USADAs findings. “Well, absolutely,” Phil answered. “I mean, if you’re going to cheat your way through your career.”

Until this year’s Tour de France, I had been worried that there might be some underlying rationale to Phil Liggett’s position on Armstrong, mercurial as it was. I had made the mistake of apportioning a degree of Machiavellian method both to his unwavering defence of Armstrong, as well as to his subsequent condemnation. But this year’s Tour de France made it alright, and I finally found peace in the knowledge that there was nothing malevolent in Phil Liggett at all.

The first three stages were held on the island of Corsica, the third stage finishing in Calvi, on the north-west coast. Watching the same live feeds from the finish in Calvi as I was watching from my couch downstairs at home, Phil Liggett displayed the same innate self-belief and devotion that he had demonstrated for the past 15 years with Armstrong. “Peter Sagan is now going to win his first stage of the Tour de France as he hits the line,” he announced breathlessly a few seconds after Simon Gerrans had actually won the race. “And that,” he went on, “is how you say goodbye to Corsica when your name is Peter Sagan. He’s promised it for three days. He delivers it on the last.”

I was certain for a moment that Liggett would retract, that he would see what was on the TV screen and make a TV commentator-like apology for getting overly fired up, or perhaps for spilling his coffee at just the moment he was announcing the winner, and not actually watching the race. It was left to Paul Sherwen, his unfortunate sidekick, who is slightly more savvy on the topic of cycling, having actually raced professionally, to muse, “Well, that was very, very, close indeed.”

I get that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are a double-act, and I get that one is the puppeteer and the other the puppet. I accept that it is universally acknowledged in the field of sports commentating that soliloquies will always be trumped by the warm glow of conversation between two retired contemporaries. However, in this case, purely as a matter of taste, I engender the words of the Fugees: “Too many MCs, and not enough MICs!”

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